Why I am a Democrat
by Steve Sheffey, NJDC Activist
I am pro-Israel. I am a Zionist. I have been a member of AIPAC for virtually my entire adult life. I am a Democrat. And I’m in good company. Of the 43 Jews in Congress, only 3 are Republicans—a whopping 7%. Jews voted Democratic in the 2006 election by a margin of 87% to 13%. Yet that 13% is a feisty 13%, and we are being told that this is not our father’s Democratic party, that the Democratic party includes anti-Semitic elements, and that the Democratic party is weak on Israel. In short, that the Democratic party is no longer the natural home of American Jews. It’s time to set the record straight.
I personally know people who are very knowledgeable about Judaism, very concerned about Israel, and exemplars in their personal lives of the principles of tzedakah and tikkun olam who are staunch Republicans. In fact, some of my best friends… We may disagree, so let’s disagree respectfully and acknowledge not only the good intentions of those who disagree with us, but that they are intelligent people who clearly have the best interests of America and Israel at heart. We all must be true to ourselves without demonizing or impugning the motives or good will of those with whom we disagree. My purpose in writing this is not to question or disparage anyone, but to explain to those who don’t know, or may have forgotten, why the Democratic party has been and remains the natural home for American Jewry.
Everyone who lives here is an immigrant or is descended from immigrants. Most ethnic groups start out as Democrats because Democrats are more focused on defending the weak and powerless. Democrats see government as a powerful force for good, not as inherently evil. Democrats believe that there is a higher law than the law of the jungle and unfettered capitalism. This is not to say that Democrats oppose free markets, but that Democrats recognize that some elements of society need health insurance, education, food, and shelter now, and cannot wait for those necessities to trickle down. Government does not exist simply to enforce property rights and provide for the common defense. Rather, we Democrats believe that government can and should intervene to help the needy, provide social services, protect the environment, and reduce income inequality.
The difference between Jews and many other groups is that even as Jews overcame anti-Semitism and achieved economic success, Jews remained committed to the ideal of a government committed to helping the less fortunate. Whether this is a result of a long history of being oppressed, a feeling of outsider status that persisted in the face of economic and social acceptance, or the values of tzedakah and tikkun olam so embedded in the Jewish soul is a matter for sociologists to debate, but the fact is that Jews have remained committed to these ideals. As a group, Jews do not vote their pocketbooks, but instead consider the needs of all the American people, not just themselves.
Part of the reason that Jews have done so well in America is that we have a legal, constitutionally guaranteed separation of church and state. Jews therefore are particularly concerned about encroachment on this separation, and for that reason too support Democrats. It is unlikely, for example, that a Democratic majority in Congress would have passed the Terry Schiavo Emergency Relief Act, which forced the reinsertion of a feeding tube to keep a woman in a vegetative state alive against the wishes of her husband.
Yet some would have us believe that we should put our fundamental values and beliefs aside because, in their view, the Republicans are stronger on Israel. Fortunately, that’s a choice we don’t have to make, and it’s no longer a hypothetical question. Thanks in part to Jewish votes, the Democrats took control of Congress in 2006. The new Democratic Congress is proving just as, if not more, pro-Israel than its predecessor. Jews with strong pro-Israel records are in key positions of power now, and the overall leadership of the Democratic party—Pelosi and Hoyer in the House, Reid in the Senate—has strong ties to the pro-Israel community. For proof that the Democratic Congress is strongly pro-Israel, see our earlier post here.
Some of our Republican friends point to isolated statements by some Democrats and others who, while not in office, consider themselves Democrats. Rather than concern themselves with why George Bush takes policy advice from former Secretary of State James Baker, hardly a friend of Israel, they focus on Jimmy Carter, who has not held office for nearly 30 years and whose views on Israel have been publicly repudiated by, among others, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and Howard Dean. Rather than focus on the likes of Sen. Chuck Hagel and Rep. Darrell Issa, who are actually in power and speak ill of Israel, they focus on ousted Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney (ousted in a Democratic primary, by the way) and others who have little or no practical influence on the pro-Israel stance of the Democratic party.
It is true that there appears to be some anti-Semitism among certain segments of the left. Whether this has always been there or whether it is now more apparent because the left seems to be adapting faster to the Internet is hard to say, but there is no doubt it is there. But these fringes are not influencing Democratic policy on Israel. The reason some of this noise comes out of the Democratic party is that the anti-Israel left has nowhere to go but the Democratic party, where it is marginalized, just as the anti-Israel right (Pat Buchanan, James Baker, Chuck Hagel, etc) has nowhere to go but the Republican party, where it too, fortunately, is marginalized. It is easy to dig up ridiculous statements made by certain Democrats and it is equally easy to dig up ridiculous statements made by certain Republicans. What matters is how Democrats and Republicans vote, and they both vote overwhelmingly for Israel in Congress.
There are real differences between the parties, but Israel is not one of them. What is particularly disturbing about Republican attacks on the Democratic party from within the Jewish community is that we should know better. We have worked tirelessly for 60 years to support the natural instinct of the American people to support Israel no matter what their party or politics. Bi-partisan support for Israel is essential, and given the cyclical nature of American politics, nothing could be more foolish or short-sighted than to urge Jews to abandon one party. Yet this is exactly what some Republicans would have us do. They seem willing to turn support for Israel into a partisan issue simply for short-term political gain. If someone who is pro-Israel finds himself or herself more at home in the Republican party, then that’s fine, and probably good for that person and support for Israel generally. But let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that from a pro-Israel perspective, one party is better than the other. The facts—what the parties actually do, rather than what fringes associated with those parties may say—don’t support that conclusion.
But there is a difference between the parties on other parts of the Jewish agenda. In many cases, the few Democrats who are not good on Israel are good on other issues of concern to the Jewish community, whereas the Republicans who are not good on Israel generally are not good on any issues of concern to the Jewish community. Politics is about coalitions and strange bedfellows. If you believe that it is appropriate to work with the Christian right to promote pro-Israel policies so long as we do not compromise or embrace their views on other issues, then it is clearly appropriate to work with those few Democrats less sympathetic to Israel on social and economic justice issues as long as we do not compromise or embrace their views on Israel—and as the votes show, the Democrats in Congress are very strong on Israel. Would that the Republicans were nearly as strong on the social and economic issues we care about.
Thanks in part to the increasing influence of the Christian right in the Republican party, the GOP is catching up to the Democrats in terms of pro-Israel reliability. But Israel is the only issue where the Republicans have embraced the Jewish agenda. On the social and economic issues discussed above, the Democrats far and away have embraced the Jewish agenda. Let’s be very clear: This is not a question of trading support for Israel for other issues we hold dear. Both parties strongly support Israel, but only the Democratic party supports the rest of the Jewish agenda.
Then why do even 13% of Jews vote Republican? There are several possible explanations. One is that some Jews use support for Israel as a fig-leaf to hide their real motivation for voting Republican: their pocketbook. They would never support a candidate who is not pro-Israel, but given the choice between a pro-Israel candidate who supports their economic needs and a pro-Israel candidate who supports the economic needs of those truly in need, they opt for themselves and offer concern for Israel as the reason. We should be proud that so many Jews continue to carry the concepts of tzedakah and tikkun olam into their political activities, but there always will be some who do not.
Another possibility is fear. The Republicans play very well into the emotional needs of our community. We are all concerned about Israel, and just as the Republicans used fear to goad the country into war with Iraq, the Republicans use fear (“can you imagine a nuclear bomb dropped on Tel Aviv”) to demonstrate their commitment to Israel. The irony is that the Bush Administration single-handedly removed both of Iran’s natural enemies (Iraq and Afghanistan) and that Iran and North Korea made significant strides in their nuclear programs on the Bush Administration’s watch. Democrats just as strongly support Israel, but use more responsible rhetoric. The dangers Israel faces are very real, but rather than talk tough, the Democrats continue to propose meaningful legislation to fight Iran and protect Israel. Indeed, the very first to speak out against the Bush Administration’s recent proposed sale of sophisticated weapons to its buddies in Saudi Arabia were Democrats. This tough talk from Republicans makes it appear that “they feel it in their kishkes,” but political grandstanding to win votes here does nothing to make Israelis safer.
George Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress had six years to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Never happened. Amazingly, the Bush Administration still has not fully implemented the Syria Accountability Act—it manufactured evidence against Iraq but continues to turn a blind eye to the very real threat posed by Syria, but we are not seeing a rush of so-called pro-Israel Republicans racing to the House floor to make speeches denouncing the Bush Administration for these failures. You can fool all of the people some of time, and some of the people all of the time, but try as they might, the Republicans have only been able to fool 13% of us.
All of this is not to say that single-issue pro-Israel advocacy does not have its place. AIPAC, which is a lobby, and single issue pro-Israel political action committees such as CityPAC (of which I was once President), are extremely valuable and important. See our earlier post here for more on AIPAC.
As institutions, it is entirely proper that they support candidates who are good on their one issue, and sometimes that means supporting Republicans who are not good on other issues. But our support of these key institutions does not mean that when we walk into the voting booth we have to force everything else we care about out of our minds. If a candidate is not pro-Israel, then as far as I’m concerned, he is not true to the values of the Democratic party, and I have supported and would support Republicans over such candidates. If Jimmy Carter ran in my district, I’d need a very good reason not to vote Republican. But Carter has not run for office in nearly 30 years. When, as is most often the case, both candidates are pro-Israel, there is no need to compromise at all, and we should vote Democratic.
The vast majority of both parties are not Jewish, which means that we have to choose the house we are most comfortable in. For most Jews, that means the Democratic party, with its message of social and economic justice, not the Republican party, whose main goal seems to be to help the rich get richer and make the world safe for plutocracy. A good example is the estate tax. As Al Gore points out in his book The Assault on Reason, under the Republican agenda, the
the need to eliminate inheritance taxes on the wealthiest 1/100 of 1 percent of families in American (the only taxpayers who are still subject to it) has been treated as a much more important priority than the need to provide at least minimal access to health care for tens of millions of families who currently have no access to health care coverage at all.
(Emphasis in the original.) The 87% of Jews who vote Democratic are not stupid and are not any less concerned about Israel than the 13% who vote Republican; they simply continue to feel more comfortable with the Democratic party’s commitment to tzedakah and tikkun olam.
So I say to my Republican friends, continue to vote Republican if you want to, but remember: When the Messiah comes, it’s 87% likely that he’ll be a Democrat.